Date: April 6, 2023
Festival: Maundy Thursday
Text: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI, and CTKLC
Appointed Scriptures: Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Sermon Hymn: LSB #617 O Lord, We Praise Thee
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever just felt dirty in your entire being? I don’t mean after a long day’s hard work—but some sin you’ve done that you believe to be so heinous, or something that was done against you. You feel unclean. Ashamed. Perhaps it’s because you’ve broken the 6th Commandment in some way—you’ve committed some sexual immorality, or maybe some other sin. Or perhaps an injustice was done against you—you were assaulted or abused. Or maybe your recover after a major surgery is a long and stinky one. Whatever it is, you cannot seem to escape this feeling of being dirty no matter what you do or how you feel. Have you ever felt that? Do you feel it now?
I saw a comic strip the other day of a character reader a book. He looks up from his book and says, “I’ve read so much. But lived so little. I bet a world of wonders awaits me outside!” And he goes to the window, opens the curtain, and finds the world is chaotic and on fire with an atomic bomb going off in the distance while an alien invasion is going on with UFOs flying everywhere. It’s ridiculous, and that’s the point. We want to escape from our dirty, messy lives in the world, so we will use anything as our escape. Instead of doing what the psalmists did by going to the Lord in prayer by lamenting our despair before Him and trusting in His mercy, who alone provides the way of escape, we go to other things to take refuge in all distress. We sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and then find refuge in other gods when life gets messy.
Perhaps we’re like that comic character who reads books to escape the world he lives in by getting lost in a fictional world. Or maybe TV provides us that form of escape, or video games, a sports game, work, self-isolation… It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these things when they remain in their proper place, but when they take the place of God, that’s where the wound only festers. We don’t know how to make ourselves clean, so we try to escape from our stink, but our shame or guilt only festers. The escape is never good enough. No matter where we go and no matter what we do or how many times we do escape, the stink never seems to go away. It sticks to our consciences like a bad stain that just won’t come out.
The ever-impetuous Peter understood this. It’s the Feast of the Passover—the remembrance of God’s wrath passing over the Jews whose doors were covered in lambs’ blood and falling instead on the firstborn of the Egyptians—and then Jesus does something weird. While they’re still eating, Jesus rises from His seat, and even strange verbs are used to describe what Jesus does. Instead of the usual word of taking off His clothing, He lays down His outer garments, just like He would soon lay down His life the next day [cf. John 10:17-18]. Then He starts to wash the disciples’ dirty, stinky feet.
When Jesus gets to Peter, he’s offended. “Lord, do You wash my feet? You will never wash my feet!” Can we really blame Peter, though? Jesus is King of the universe! We should be the ones to wash His feet! Perhaps Peter thought it best that he wash his own feet as well. Washing another person’s feet is the lowest thing you can do not just physically but also relationally and socially. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want anyone to wash my nasty, stinky feet after a long day of work, especially Jesus. It’s embarrassing! I’d rather wash them myself! I don’t want my Lord to see me this way, or smell how dirty I am! It’s a vulnerable position.
But Jesus persisted, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with Me.” Well then, if that’s the case, don’t stop at my feet, Lord—wash my whole body! If having a share with You means You must wash me, wash my whole being! Again, who can blame Peter? After a long day’s hard work, it’s not just our feet that stink, but our whole body! But Jesus was thinking beyond physical washing here. Peter had already been bathed. Perhaps Jesus was referring to his baptism—he had already repented and received forgiveness of sins in John’s baptism. Yet as one continues walking in this life, they must receive regular foot washing through daily repentance.
This is why Luther calls repentance—which we can also call the Christian life—”a daily Baptism,” because by repentance, Luther writes, “we always keep purging away whatever belongs to the old Adam.” Such things include “anger, hate, envy, unchastity, stinginess, laziness, arrogance,” and “unbelief.” These things make us dirty, and they even cause us to make others dirty. Martin Chemnitz and other Lutheran theologians describe the old Adam, or original sin, as “a spiritual leprosy” [FC SD I, 6]. We are corrupt with sin, and we infect others with it, even our own children just as we inherited original sin from our first parents, Adam and Eve. Yet because Baptism assaulted the old Adam in each of us, repentance continues that assault, and therefore becomes a daily Baptism [LC IV, 65-66, 74-76]. Peter desired to be washed in his entirety—like a leper during a purification ritual from the Law of Moses—but he was already washed. Therefore, it was necessary that Jesus wash only his feet as he continued walking this messy life in his baptism.
Then the other strange verb is used when Jesus is finished. Although the ESV says He “put on” His outer garments, the Greek actually says He takes up His clothing, again pointing us to tomorrow when Jesus would take up His cross and even further to Sunday when Jesus would take up His life [cf. John 10:17-18]. Jesus then asks the disciples a question they do not yet comprehend, “Do you understand what I have done to you?” They wouldn’t understand until after the resurrection. There is Jesus’ call to discipleship here—that to love one another just as Christ has loved us is to seek the lowest position and serve one another. But Jesus’ actions first have a Christological meaning.
He washed His disciples’ feet; their feet were covered in water. The following day, Jesus’ feet would be covered not in water, but in His own blood—for His disciples, for you. Before you understand how we ought to love one another, you must first grasp what it means that Jesus loves you. As Jesus acknowledged, He is our Teacher and our Lord—we constantly sit at His feet and learn from Him, and the earth is His footstool as King of the universe. Yet He did what no king or president or governor would ever do for you: He stepped down from His throne and subjected Himself to humility as your servant, even death on a cross [cf. Phil. 2:5-8].
As King, we are His subjects. He is the perfect King; He has never done any wrong. Yet we rebel against Him, we break His laws, and we commit crime against one another. We deserve the King’s indictment and the just punishment for breaking His Law. Instead, the King became a servant and took your place. Instead of slaughtering us all as we deserve and our blood covering His outer garments, He led Himself to the slaughter and became covered in His own blood, down to His very feet. Furthermore, instead of you becoming covered in your own blood, He covers you with His holy, precious, innocent blood. Much as the Israelites covered the doorposts of their homes with lambs’ blood and God’s wrath passed over them, so the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, covers the doorpost of your heart and God’s wrath has passed over you.
You were baptised—you have been cleansed of all that makes you dirty. As you walk this life, every week you come here with stinky feet covered in the muck and grime of sin you walked, and the Lord washes them when you repent in Holy Absolution, which is none other than a daily Baptism. And at the Lord’s Table, you receive the blood that covered His feet. You drink His holy and innocent blood, which washes you thoroughly within and without. God no longer counts you as one who is dirty in sin but one who is pure and clean in the flesh and blood of His only-begotten Son.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus doesn’t care how dirty or smelly your feet are. Exposing your stink of sin before Him cannot repulse Him. He’s smelled it all—He lived a human life, so He knows what it’s like to walk this earth in suffering. Like He took on His outer garment after washing His disciples’ feet, He took on all your sins on the cross. He is the King who approached lepers, the lame, the blind, the deaf, beggars, prostitutes, a bleeding woman, rotting corpses, and cleansed them from their sins and gave them life again. You are not repugnant to the Lord. You are loved. He is the one who laid down His life and took it up again so that you might lay down your sins at the cross and take on the righteous garment of His flesh and blood. He welcomes your feet at the Table, that He may wash them with the water and blood that poured out from His pierced side.
Now we know how to love one another: we cover each other’s stink with the balm of absolution. He has called husbands to love their wives just as He has loved the Church, who gave Himself up for her [Eph. 5:25]. Just as Christ is never repulsed by your sins but graciously approaches you, so a husband is never repulsed by his wife but always gives of himself to serve and protect her, “for better, for worse… in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish… according to God’s holy will” [LSB p. 276]. There is no greater love than one who lays down his life for his friends [John 15:13], so soldiers lay down their lives for their comrades and their fellow countrymen, just as Christ did for you whom He calls “friend” [15:15].
“Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another,” Jesus says [13:34], and we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Ultimately, to love one another is to forgive as He first forgave us—with the justifying blood of the Lamb of God upon the doorposts of our churches, our homes, and our hearts, to the glory of Christ, now and forever. Amen.